Retailing is gaga for yoga.

The latest chain to get into the act is Limited Brands, which, through its Victoria’s Secret division, is testing a collection called VSX. One freestanding VSX store, of about 2,000 square feet, is operating in the Easton Town Center near Columbus, Ohio, and the merchandise also is selling in 30 Victoria’s Secret stores nationwide.

This story first appeared in the May 23, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The lifestyle center, developed by Leslie H. Wexner, Limited’s founder, chairman and chief executive officer, is an incubator for the corporation’s new concepts.

The VSX store makes the association to Victoria’s Secret, but does it discreetly in smaller lettering on the awning. The name is reminiscent of Ralph Lauren’s active label, called RLX.

After selling off its Express and Limited stores women’s businesses last year, both of which were challenging but are being overhauled under new ownership, there’s an opportunity for Limited Brands to reconsider a sportswear alternative. Doing it in a smaller box is also a good option in comparison with the often oversize women’s stores with which Limited, Gap, Old Navy and other chains have been saddled.

At a time when most women’s sportswear retailers and brands are suffering, stores are searching for growth in the active arena, with yogawear particularly promising. What’s particularly appealing about sport- and yoga-related merchandise is its multipurpose character. Women wear the clothes as casualwear and loungewear as well as for exercise.

VSX sells sport bras, athletic pants, yoga pants, T-shirts and other merchandise.

“Most suburban mothers wear the stuff all day,” said one specialty store executive. The best-selling products, he added, incorporate technical performance fabrics, comfort and a sexy look.

Lululemon, the fast-growing chain that originated in Vancouver 10 years ago, has inspired others to jump on the yoga bandwagon, though Lululemon products are more expensive than VSX.

Other fashion retailers that have stretched into the active-yoga category include Bebe Sport; Abercrombie & Fitch, through its Gilly Hicks division that launched last fall, and, most recently, J. Crew, which about a month ago starting selling a yoga collection online and at its store in Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. J. Crew is considering putting its yoga merchandise in other stores and will include yoga in fall catalogues. Active brands also have expanded into the category, including Nike, Adidas and Under Armour. Even Walgreens is in on the act with its new Casual Apparel line that includes yoga pants as well as T-shirts, hoodies, quilted vests and socks.

“No one needs J. Crew to provide yoga clothes,” Millard “Mickey” Drexler, chairman and chief executive of J. Crew told WWD. “But it’s a matter of style, fit, quality, having the right colors and details and being differentiated.” Drexler added that yoga is a business “that’s important to our customers. We selected yoga because it really fits very much into what we thought we could do well and what will differentiate us in the market.”

“It’s become a highly competitive, but not yet saturated category,” said Jennifer Black of Jennifer Black Associates.

Julie Bryan, a retail analyst from Jennifer Black Associates, visited the VSX store and left with a positive impression. “I love the product. There’s great stretch and great support,” she said. “Previously, Limited had a sport line in Victoria’s Secret stores. It didn’t do that well. The challenge is gaining brand recognition and competing with the likes of Nike and Lululemon, which have great brand recognition. That’s a hurdle.”

Bryan said the fit is comparable to Lululemon, and added, “VSX is very complimentary to a women’s figure and supportive, which is not an easy combination.”

She described the look of the store as “basic — kind of similar to an American Apparel store, with a simple layout that makes it easier to find products.”

The question is if and when Limited gives VSX the green light to roll out. In a conference call Wednesday, Sharen Turney, ceo of Victoria’s Secret, said, “VSX is performing to expectations, and we continue to be confident about its potential.”

“It is a merchandise line that should be a natural fit for the VS customer,” said Mark Montagna, analyst at CL King & Associates. “Management is doing its typically thorough analysis and business monitoring before rolling it out extensively. We do not expect it to roll out until it is performing to acceptable rates of return. If VS can get it right, it is a big opportunity. Yogawear is now a piece of the normal attire for women.”

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